This Week: Blue Comet SPT Layzner (Aoki Ryuusei SPT Layzner)
Despite it being from 1985, this was bleeding edge “I dropped everything I was watching to power through this” material in the past seven days.
This is a series whose name I have heard passed around a lot by robot show fans older than I. As a Ryōsuke Takahashi mecha series (he of Armored Troopers VOTOMS fame, among others), it has a sizable interest from that alone. Yet it has always been a show seemingly out of reach to many overseas like myself though, having never been available internationally and previously only incomplete English subtitles existed for the series. My Japanese is nowhere near good enough to parse out a Real Robot storyline on my own.
This time last week, one would not have been able to marathon this television show from start to finish in English. As of last Saturday however, now you can!
What we have here is a focus on the power of hubris, the USA versus USSR Cold War dichotomy extrapolated beyond the Earth and out to Mars, and an outside galactic party viewing the whole deadlock-but-armed-to-the-teeth mess as falling under what we would now call something based on Responsibility to Protect protocols.
Which is to say: Grados, an alien race beyond our star, feels the advancement of the Earth into space is a threat that would if left unchecked cause great harm to their people down the road. They have in turn sent an invasion force out to Earth as a form of preemptive self defense, to seek to put a lid on this before things get to that stage. A renegade individual named Eiji breaks away, shuttle and mecha in tow, seeking to warn the unsuspecting humans and get a message to Earth before the fleet arrives.
To let them know what is coming.
It is a really solid setup for the scenario, since the paranoia of the Cold War brings with it a host of issues for the characters to struggle with.
Earth military forces think that the other side has developed some sort of special highly advanced new weapon, the notion that Eiji alien or not may be himself a threat or a subject they can study, those who do come to trust Eiji find themselves at odds with their own friends or command structure, and so on. Certainly, while a primary theme of the show is both of personal and national arrogance, there is usually a degree of justifiability in them. While we as an audience may at points want to shake certain characters for acting particular ways, it is at the same time understandable if, say, someone on the other end of the radio thinks someone may be a little loopy for saying they have an alien with an important message to tell. Or the confidence swagger that your intelligence information is correct.
Which brings up a bit of another issue, looming in the background:
While Eiji has taken it upon himself to try and bring this warning to the Earth, at the expense of being branded a traitor, Gradosian technology is at a much higher level than that of the Earth at this time (hence why Gradosian leadership sees a need to do this military intervention now, before it is too late, itself another topic). While he has managed to steal away some mecha to fight off recon pursuers, less than a handful of robots is not exactly massive space fleet repellant when to you to thinking about it. So he has left the world he knows, and the plan to halt its operation is not exactly a sound one militarily.
All to at least warn a world that may ignore, chide, deride, or misuse what he wants to say.
For the first half of the show especially, I felt it had a really great sense of episodic snappiness.
Everything plays to the frantic journey, to want to get to Earth and as hurried as our cast becomes, with little in the way of dead air or spinning its wheels. The ways in which cliffhangers are handled feel like valid conclusion points like the end of a chapter in a nice book to make you want to do that “just one more…” move, rather than cheap contrivance. The mecha battles have a great sense of Ryōsuke Takahashi doing a “harder” version of Mobile Suit Gundam, in that while the suits are agile and possess ranged weapons they have more bulk to and they crunch into each other well. They have a lot of weight in their movements, while at the same time not being slow moving, which is a difficult balance. Even grunt level machines can shrug off several hits without much issue, bounce off walls or fall over in ways that take a number of frames to actually show, and so on.
There gets to be a kineticismto these fights, as there are some very difficult camera work tricks thrown in for television cel animation in terms of panning and zooming while the machines are in the middle of doing something. Lots of detail work that one would probably bite the bullet and use CGI for now; even Eiji’s shuttle is a three pronged rotating monster with underside tubes and everything, in terms of trying to hand draw that convincingly on a modern television schedule or budget. And the show uses very little stock footage on the whole throughout (there is a mid-series recap episode, and sometimes a short but critical flashback, but not much recycling otherwise), which more than adds to the sense of how this even managed to get out the door back in its day.
There is television cel animation in here that floors a lot of currently airing programs, in terms of technical detail and craftsmanship in motion.
A key stumbling block is the wheels of the show sort of pop off and go off the rails near the end.
The second arc of the show was originally scheduled to be as long as the first, but the series was canceled a chunk of episodes prior to that. As a result, the last few episodes feel a lot more fast forwarded and papering over things to bring about the finale. Thankfully, the Blue Comet SPT Layzner OVA’s do aim to resolve this, in that while the first two of them recap thirty eight episodes of television show, the third hour long episode is then the “true” ending. Think of it like needing to watch The End of Evangelion after the Neon Genesis Evangelion television series, except in this case the issue was the television plug being pulled by outside forces. As a result, one needs to plan a little more than just seeing the television series alone to get the more fully fleshed out story.
Incidentally, funnily enough, to keep that Evangelion train going: a more complete name of our lead doing what they do because of issues surrounding their family in Blue Comet SPT Layzner is Eiji Asuka. The name of the personality of his mecha and ship computer system, feminine in tone while lacking much in the way of thinking of personal morality, is Rei. That always stuck out to me in what I read of this show, even before I finally got to see this series.
The setup alone could easily look kind of silly these days to many (I mean its the kind of thing where we have the USA and USSR having their own Mars space bases in the year 1996), and the MyAnimeList.net synopsis for Layzner is waaay too long / cumbersome for what amounts to just stating the ground rules that mostly come out in the first episode or two. I could see it easily intimidating people from wanting to pick up the series, as this is very much something which, now that it is out in the wild in a form more consumable for native English speakers will need a lot of word of mouth initiatives to get people to check it out and raise awareness.
The bluster or hubris thematic point relating to a larger Cold War / Us vs Them / loss of touch with reality I mentioned does factor in at certain times as well as a potential tripping point where it can beabout as subtle as orange construction area uniforms and the corresponding jackhammers. So that can be a fault, for sure, for some particular character scenes.
But most of the time it stays more reasonable in trying to walk that line, so it is like finding some particular curves overly jarring on an otherwise enjoyable rollercoaster. The first half of the show especially, to reiterate, has a nice sensation like that. Where even when it rattled around a bit, I still wanted to pop the next episode on. Not just because I was trying to power through the show in a week (given, I was also doing that), but it was a nice ride I was enjoying.
There is some solid quality stuff in Blue Comet SPT Layzner for sure I would say. Any warts relating to the television series getting kind of condensed by the end aside, as a complete package it remains a classically enjoyable mecha show even today.
It definitely deserved being subtitled after all these years.
Mothballs is a weekly write-up of already completed anime I have either removed from my backlog or have recently revisited. A crash space for my immediate thoughts and personal processing, these are not intended as full reviews.